While the Vatican may be the world’s smallest country, it packs quite a punch when it comes to history and culture. With monumental churches, lavish decorations, and celebrated art, it looks every inch the religious powerhouse it is.
Covering just over 100 acres within the city of Rome near the Borgo and Prati districts, much of Vatican City can be seen in one day.
The Vatican Museums
Beat the crowds and head early to the Vatican Museums. The vast complex houses over 70,000 works of art collected by Popes over the centuries. They include some of the most important pieces of Renaissance art in the world.
Check out the classical statues at the Pio Clemintino Museum, including the stunning Apollo Belvedere, and the iconic Laocoön. Also, see the vividly painted Egyptian sarcophagi in the Egyptian Museum and the Ancient Roman artifacts at the Etruscan Museum. Don’t miss the Map Gallery, with its beautiful 16th-century maps of Italy, and the Raphael Rooms. Painted with stunning frescoes by Raphael and his students, it houses his masterpiece, The School of Athens.
However, the crowning glory is the Sistine Chapel with its world-famous art by Michaelangelo. It is also, of course, where the conclave meets to elect the new pope.
The magnificent ceiling frescoes feature scenes from the Bible, including the Creation of Adam, The Flood, and The Last Judgement. These paintings are best viewed from the east wall. Don’t forget to see the walls themselves, which have paintings by other Renaissance masters like Botticelli and Perugino.
Behind these museums lie the lush and perfectly manicured Vatican Gardens.
St. Peter’s Square
The majestic domed structure of St. Peter’s Basilica is the heart of the Vatican. It overlooks St. Peter’s Square, with its semi-circular rows of Doric columns and the central Egyptian obelisk. It is the largest church in the world and is said to be the burial site of Jesus’s apostle, Saint Peter.
Stepping into its cavernous and sumptuously decorated interior is an experience like no other. The basilica itself is also full of priceless art, from Michaelangelo’s Pietà to the towering Throne of St. Peter on Bernini’s altar.
Underneath St. Peter’s Basilica lie the papal tombs in the Vatican Grottoes. But, overhead is the magnificent dome of Michaelangelo. Soaring to a height of 119 meters, up its steep steps are breathtaking views of Rome, Vatican City, and the Tiber River. Across it, you can even see the round keep of Castel Sant’Angelo and its bridge lined with angels.
When visiting, keep in mind that it is a religious city and modest dress is expected. Also, remember that many of the restaurants and souvenir shops in the city (and the nearby Borgo district) are often overpriced tourist traps.